Has ‘Desperate Housewives’ Recovered From Sophomore Slump?

LOS ANGELES (October 4, 2006) — The metaphor proved irresistible for “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry. When his ABC series returned after a creatively rocky second season, it opened with Wisteria Lane drenched in purifying rain.

“Let’s just wipe everything clean and start fresh,” Cherry said, acknowledging the symbolism and the need for change.

He is confident that the Sunday-night show, a comedy-drama about suburban life that became an instant hit in its first year and helped alter ABC’s fortunes and TV storytelling itself, is in for better times.

“Season one was a tidal wave. The success, the ratings, the attention, the workload. By the time I finished the season, I was intellectually, morally and spiritually spent — not to mention physically,” he told The Associated Press.

For a project intended to represent one person’s voice, which runs counter to most of TV, the effect was inevitable.

Cherry, entering the second year already drained and hit with a studio request for extra episodes, was behind from the start. As he scrambled to revamp story lines written by others, he said, the show lost “a large sense of its identity because I wasn’t driving the train.”

But he argues that critics were overly harsh in their blanket condemnation.

“The biggest failure of season two was a lack of consistency. It’s not like every episode sucked. … I’m immensely proud of some of the stuff we did,” he said.

Along with “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” also helped revive extended story arcs revolving around a central mystery — Cherry tips his hat to “Twin Peaks” (1990-91) as inspiration — after TV’s long fixation on “Law & Order”-like shows with single-episode plots.

Audience loyalty allowed “Housewives” to finish the season ranked No. 4 in the ratings despite its sophomore woes. It was clear that Susan, Lynette, Bree, Gabrielle and Edie hadn’t worn out their welcome as the show started this year with a second-place debut.

Cherry, now sole executive producer, is intent on rewarding the faithful and ensuring the series lives up to its potential. He’s aided by new writers Jeff Greenstein (”Will & Grace”) and Joe Keenan (”Frasier”).

“I will never have the element of surprise again,” Cherry said. “Now I just have to work consistently, doing good storytelling with richly detailed characters and interesting twists and turns and surprises.”

Among them: Bree’s (Marcia Cross) marriage to Orson (Kyle MacLachlan), who may have a murderous past. Susan (Teri Hatcher), standing vigil at the bedside of comatose lover Mike (James Denton), connects with a man (Dougray Scott) in a similar predicament. And Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) and Carlos’ (Ricardo Antonio Chavira) split goes from bitterness to melancholy.

One plot twist that Cherry didn’t plan is Cross’ real-life pregnancy. The 44-year-old actress and her stockbroker husband, Tom Mahoney, are expecting a baby in April.

“Marcia actually wants me to have Bree be pregnant. I’m toying with the idea but I might not be able to do it because we already have a lot of her story line planned. You hate to go back and pull the threads,” Cherry said.

“The odds are unlikely at this point that the character of Bree would get pregnant. But you never know,” he added, keeping his options open.

Another part of the third-season makeover calls for a renewed emphasis on the housewives as a group, something Cherry realized fans were pining for.

“That’s the glue that holds the show together, friendship. I had to be reminded of it a little bit,” he said. The first episode, for instance, included a cozy ladies’ lunch in which Bree delivered the surprising news of her engagement.

Such group shots take time, which Cherry didn’t have last year.

“It’s so hard when you have a scene with all the women. It’s a nightmare from a production standpoint because of all the hair and makeup people and having to get close-ups on all of them.”

Don’t assume there’s discord on the set, Cherry cautioned. When Felicity Huffman, who plays Lynette, was cast in the upcoming film “Georgia Rules” the other actresses volunteered to work extra days to accommodate her schedule.

“Whatever personality clashes there were the first season were kind of minor, but the press spun them bigger. There was a bad day that occurred in front of a Vanity Fair reporter,” Cherry said. “Sadly, though, there were 200 other working days were everyone was lovely to each other.”

With cast contracts either signed or close to resolution, he said, the expectation is the series will run at least through the 2010-11 season. His plan is to stick with it to the end.

“I do not have a by-the-numbers thing about this. When I die, `Desperate Housewives’ is on that gravestone. I know that. So I really treat this like it’s my child.”

But when he’s done with the series, he vowed, he’s done with TV. The next stop is Broadway.

“I’ll take whatever money I’ve made, I’m going straight to theater and writing books for musicals,” said Cherry, who started as a musical theater performer and counts “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music,” “Gypsy” and “Wicked” among his favorites.

“I feel like I really just started out learning how to write. I really know a lot about dramatic structure and how to paint characters. … Now I would love the time to really dig deep and do something great.”

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